Lecture for students with discussion at Banja Luka University, 23 May 2017
By Christian Danielsson, Director General for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, European Commission
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Bosnia and Herzegovina’s European future – Your future
I am delighted to be in Banja Luka today to meet with you here at the university. Universities are places where people think freely and pose the best questions. That is why I am particularly keen to discuss and hear your views your country’s European future.
A lot has happened between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Europe recently. The Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU entered into force in 2015 and your country also applied for EU membership last year. This all demonstrated the country’s clear determination to reform. And this was recognised by the European Union last September when it gave the green light for the next step on the road to accession.
To reap the benefits of EU integration, your country needs to align with the EU systems and structures. It needs to reform and adapt. These changes are crucial for Bosnia and Herzegovina:
to make the economy sustainable and more prosperous;
to make social systems fairer;
to improve the performance of the public administration in delivering services to citizens; and
to enhance rule of law and fight corruption.
A great start was made with the Reform Agenda for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Progress was made early on. And it is vital that implementation continues. I welcome that Republika Srpska is fully part of this agenda and will reap its benefits in the medium term.
On both sides we are already planning for the future. The EU is taking a ‘deep look’ at Bosnia and Herzegovina through the European Commission’s Questionnaire which requests the information necessary for the preparation of the Opinion on the application of Bosnia and Herzegovina for membership of the European Union.
There will also be a number of specialised assessment visits to your country. After that, the European Commission will give its recommendations to EU Member States on further steps towards candidate status and opening of accession negotiations. We have high hopes for Bosnia and Herzegovina and all its peoples and entities. And I know that many of you here want to see your country fully integrated in the European Union.
Some may not yet believe our common future is possible and realistic. It is! Do not allow anyone to block the European path or to scare you off. On the contrary, if you see a lack of progress and indecision, make sure your voice is heard and hold your elected leaders to account.
Last year your country applied for EU membership. In doing so it committed to respecting the core values of the European Union, namely human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. It was also a crucial step in moving from the post-war Dayton logic to the forward-looking European perspective.
But having a forward look, and a shared vision of the future, is not the same as forgetting or ignoring the past. The EU recognises the great importance of prosecuting war crimes and has extensively supported efforts to that end. We encourage Bosnia and Herzegovina, like all other EU-aspiring countries, to pursue all possible internal reconciliation efforts as well as maintaining good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation. This will help to overcome the uneasy legacy of the past and will contribute to real stability and peace in the long-term.
Clearly, leaders of this country should also lead the reconciliation process. But while reconciliation may start with incentives from officialdom, it can only really take off within and through the society itself. And thanks to your education and your ability to develop broader horizons, all of you have a unique role to play. You can and should be instrumental in building a tolerant and open-minded society. One that will be able to look to the future with a positive view, once an honest reflection on the past has been undertaken.
Speaking about you – and here I mean those who learn and teach from primary up to higher education – I believe that education needs particular attention. First, society cannot prosper and develop without quality education preparing young people well for their professional lives. At the same time, the existing labour markets must be based on an appreciation of proper education, professional competence and merit, rather than personal backgrounds and connections. Youth unemployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which remains at sky-high levels, is testimony to these problems.
Second, education plays a key role in the context of reconciliation, especially at elementary and secondary levels. Pupils often suffer discrimination of the majority against minorities, or de facto segregation along ethnic lines. This is unacceptable and needs to be overcome. Moreover, curricula differ in key subjects such as history, where information and teaching about communities other than one’s own is often lacking. The related question is obvious: does such a system contribute to a positive change and long-term reconciliation, or does it rather cement and deepen the existing divisions? I will leave the answer to you.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country of amazing diversity. It has a rich history, and long traditions of tolerance. But it also bears the tragic heritage of the recent war. This, however, must not lead to paralysis. The tragedies of the 1990s are not the yard-stick for the present or the future, which is where your country must live and grow.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has huge unexploited potential. The European path provides guidance on how to realise that potential. I believe that you and all Bosnia and Herzegovina citizens want prosperity resulting from a stronger economy. You want good jobs and favourable living conditions for yourselves and your families. You also want to be better connected to each other, through the internet, railways and highways. You want Bosnia and Herzegovina to be a country for its citizens, with equality for all, without discrimination of any type; a country where the law really rules. That means where laws are respected, implemented, enforced and their breaches sanctioned. And a country where everyone can enjoy their cultural and other rights, where your skills and capabilities determine your chances on the labour market , and not the adherence to a particular ethnic group or political party. You want the country to guarantee safety and security for everyone, in an environment where fear has no place.
Bosnia and Herzegovina including the Republika Srpska can be all of that! It is realistic. These principles work inside the EU – those among you who have the Erasmus experience can certainly confirm that. And the path leading towards EU membership will create, step by step, the conditions for these principles to come true. All the Member States that joined the Union needed to follow the path of reforms and progressive legislative and regulatory approximation. And all of them needed to change their regulations and even their constitutions. And they all did so as a natural and necessary part of their European integration process.
Let me underline in this context that while Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole is the EU’s partner in the EU integration process, the role of the entities is vital since so many constitutional competencies rest with them. Consequently, EU integration without the active involvement and support of Republika Srpska would simply not work. We rely as much on your entity authorities as we rely on the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole. The state and entity levels need to work well together if the goal of EU membership is to be achieved. And this can only happen if citizens throughout all parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina agree to this overriding goal. As young Europeans you can all play a key role in reaching this consensus!
I would like to conclude by stressing that we are open to the future of your country inside the EU and you can count on our support. It is for you to make clear to your elected leaders that you expect them to lead in that direction. Do not allow anyone to divide you. Stay united in your aspiration for a more prosperous, free and equitable future for yourselves and your children, in a European Bosnia and Herzegovina.